Indictment or Challenge?

Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by Jimmy Carter
(Simon & Schuster, 264 pages, $27.00)

Before it was even released on November 14, Jimmy Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, caused an uproar. The implied analogy in the title between contemporary Israel and the old South Africa drew a chorus of denunciations from Jewish groups and inspired rumors that publication was delayed until after the midterm elections, lest the book alienate Jewish Democrats and send them voting for Republicans in droves.

Israel's supporters despise comparisons to South Africa, but they would do well to interpret Carter's book as a warning shot rather than an assault. Many Israeli leaders themselves recognize that continued occupation of the West Bank, coupled with demographic shifts, may soon place them in the unenviable position of defending minority rule over a disenfranchised majority.

Although most of Carter's book is uncontroversial, the former president ultimately places most of the blame for the continued conflict on Israel. He devotes close to 200 pages recounting his personal impressions of the Middle East and its leaders, chronicling his role as a peacemaker at Camp David in 1978, and briefly describing the efforts of his successors. Carter's primary grievance is that the Camp David accords that he so painstakingly negotiated have largely been ignored beyond the Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement they brought about. Camp David, Carter reminds us, offered a framework for peace that included "full autonomy" for the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza -- a condition that 28 years later has yet to emerge. "Israel's continued control and colonization of Palestinian land," he concludes, "have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land."

Only in the book's final pages does Carter draw an explicit comparison between contemporary Israel and apartheid South Africa, and then he is careful to note that "the driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples" in Israel is "not racism but the acquisition of land." He insists, nevertheless, that Palestinians are "living as prisoners within the small portion of land left to them" and calls this condition a "system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights."

Is the term "apartheid" apt? The word itself means "apartness" in Dutch and Afrikaans. Apartheid was the political platform that brought the Afrikaner-led National Party to power in South Africa in 1948, and by the early 1960s it had become official state policy in every sphere of life. The anti-Israel left has used the term for years to connote racism in the hope that the boycotts and divestment pioneered by the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s will be revived and applied to Israel. Carter's book lends credibility to an analogy that was until now seen by many as the propaganda of a radical fringe.

But apartheid was not simply racism, segregation, and colonial land theft. It was an extraordinarily intricate system designed to control the movement and labor of blacks and strip them of South African citizenship by removing them to "homelands" where they would be granted nominal but meaningless independence.

In today's Israel, Carter sees ominously similar developments. He decries the massive concrete wall that Israel has built along and beyond the West Bank border as an "imprisonment wall" and "segregation barrier," which he believes is designed not to enhance Israel's security but to annex territory. While Carter concedes Israel's right to build a security barrier within its own territory, he insists that the wall and the Jewish-only access roads built to service the Jewish settlements deep within Palestinian territory are cutting up the future Palestine into noncontiguous enclaves that will never be viable as a state. Carter deplores the unequal resource allocation between West Bank settlers and Palestinians, in towns such as Qalqilya, which has been completely encircled by the wall and cut off from much of its farmland and water supply. He goes on to denounce the bulldozing of Palestinian homes as a form of collective punishment and municipal expansion. Finally, Carter criticizes the elaborate system of military checkpoints that allow Israel to control the internal movement of Palestinians within the West Bank by checking identification and to deny them access to East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as their capital. The 20-mile journey from Ramallah to Jerusalem can take a whole day due to lines at these checkpoints.

Though Carter does not explicitly draw the analogy between these practices and apartheid South Africa, there are striking similarities. The South African bantustans comprised swaths of noncontiguous land allotted by the government and maintained by leaders held on a tight leash by Pretoria. The state routinely bulldozed black neighborhoods to make room for whites, and the result of these "forced removals" was the growth of destitute urban townships far from the city centers. The police, through a regime of pass laws and "influx control," controlled blacks wishing to enter "white areas." If they lacked the proper permit, blacks were sent back to the bantustans.

Despite these parallels, "apartheid" remains a problematic analogy. Among other things, apartheid crumbled because white South Africans didn't make their own beds and couldn't cook their own dinner. As Hannah Arendt marveled in The Origins of Totalitarianism, South Africa was a society premised on white laziness and the exploitation of cheap black labor. Apartheid allowed a minority white population to live in ostentatious luxury with swimming pools, servants, and gardeners amid millions of blacks in abject poverty. Even if one dismisses the Zionist myth that Jews "made the desert bloom," there is no doubt that modern Israel was built by industrious settlers and not labor exploitation.

The expropriation of Palestinian land after Israeli independence in 1948 and especially after 1967 has been likened to a colonial enterprise, but it was never accompanied by systemic dependency on native labor as in South Africa. On the contrary, Zionists of all persuasions stressed the need for Jewish labor rather than reliance on Arabs. In the 1980s, a more pampered Israel began to import Palestinian labor to do its dirty work. But today, after two intifadas, the people cleaning the gutters in Tel Aviv are more likely to be Thai and Ghanaian guest workers than West Bank Palestinians.

While the apartheid analogy is inexact, the Palestinian population is expanding faster than the Jewish population and Israel will soon face a choice between an apartheid-style social order in which a Jewish minority rules over several million disenfranchised Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza or a two-state solution in which those Palestinians live independently outside Israeli control. Indeed, it was precisely this dilemma that prompted Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to break with Likud Party orthodoxy and promote disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Often referred to as "the demographic threat" by Israelis, this impending population parity is seen as a mortal danger to the cornerstone of Zionism: a Jewish majority in a Jewish state.

On the eve of the Gaza disengagement in August 2005, the Jewish population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea dropped to below 50 percent for the first time since Israel became a state in 1948. As orange-clad settlers flooded Tel Aviv's streets to protest Sharon's decision, Ha'aretz noted that disengagement from Gaza would raise the proportion of Jews in territories under Israeli control to 56.8 percent and ensure a Jewish majority "for the next 20 years."

This gives Israel time, as Carter notes, to "carve out for itself the choice portions of the West Bank, leaving Palestinians destitute within a small and fragmented remnant of their own land." Alternatively, Israelis can withdraw from the West Bank and create a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. But if they do not, it is only a matter of time until the Jewish population of Israel, sans Gaza, again drops below 50 percent. When that time comes, Israel may well find itself incontrovertibly branded with the apartheid label. This is one of the profound challenges facing Israel: Can it avoid becoming, even in its own eyes, what its critics say it already is -- a morally unacceptable system of domination? tap

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is completing his doctoral dissertation on the history of Israeli-South African relations at Oxford.